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Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley awaits the next fight with the Taliban

SAFID SHIR, Afghanistan — Astride his dappled gray stallion, Mohammad Karim looked like a weathered warrior, though he wielded a grain sack instead of a carbine.

Decades ago, Karim was a mujahid, a mountain tribesman who took up arms against Soviet soldiers and, later, the Taliban. Now 45, with white whiskers beneath his pakol, a traditional Afghan hat, he is again prepared to fight if his beloved Panjshir Valley is threatened.

"If the Taliban tries to come back, we'll fight them and kill them," he said, as he rode his horse near the shimmering blue Panjshir River and hillside trees streaked with autumn gold. "We have plenty of weapons, believe me."

There is talk of war now amid the dark gorges and snowcapped peaks of Panjshir, in northern Afghanistan, one of only two provinces never conquered by the Taliban when it ruled the country. With U.S. and other foreign combat troops withdrawing next year, many Panjshiris don't trust the Afghan army to hold back the insurgents. They say they have the weapons — and the will — to do it themselves.

A hundred miles south in Kabul, some former mujahedin warlords who fought beside Panjshiris against the Taliban also are threatening to revive their militias. Resentful that many Panjshiris and other strongmen of the old U.S.-backed Northern Alliance have been marginalized by President Hamid Karzai, they want their heavy weapons back.

"No need for that" in Panjshir, cracked Abdul Khalil, a Panjshiri and former guerrilla fighter in Safid Shir, a muddy Panjshir farming village that lost scores of men to the Taliban. "We already have all the weapons we need."

Many Afghans say such talk is mostly bluster by aging warlords. But there is genuine concern that a poor showing by former mujahedin in April's national elections could trigger cries of fraud and a return to the savage civil warfare of the early 1990s.

Afghans also are anxious about security because of Karzai's refusal to sign a post-2014 security agreement with Washington that would leave U.S. training forces in the country and continue billions of dollars in military and reconstruction aid.

The street price of an AK-47 rifle, always a barometer of public fear, has risen recently to almost $1,400 from $1,000, compared with about $400 a decade ago.

A senior officer with the NATO-led coalition said Afghan army commanders aren't overly concerned about fading warlords. But he predicted that calls for a return to the violent mujahedin era will remain an election undercurrent.

"This country has a history of militias, so the idea of a single army on behalf of a sovereign state is a new concept for Afghans," the officer said.

Panjshir was the domain of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the "Lion of Panjshir" and Northern Alliance commander. Massoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda suicide bombers two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that triggered the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan. Backed by U.S. airstrikes and special forces, the alliance helped topple the Taliban government three months later.

Panjshiris dominated Karzai's first government in the early 2000s. Ninety of the first 100 army generals appointed by the first defense minister, Panjshiri warlord Mohammad Qasim Fahim, were Panjshiris.

Karzai ultimately replaced many Northern Alliance warlords of all ethnicities with Pashtun technocrats, many of whom had returned from exile in the West. The former alliance turned against Karzai, said Atiqullah Baryalai, a former Panjshiri commander forced out by Karzai as deputy defense minister.

"The Panjshiris want to be seen as leaders of the national resistance" to the Taliban, said Baryalai, seated beneath a large portrait of Massoud in the salon of his Kabul compound. "They would never turn against the army, but they would fight the Taliban alone if it came to that.

"The Panjshiris are very special people when it comes to defending their homeland."

Most Afghan warlords disbanded their militias and surrendered heavy weapons under U.S. pressure. But Afghan security experts say the Panjshir militias never fully disarmed, stashing weapons in mountain caches. Panjshiris and other mujahedin criticize Karzai as too eager to negotiate with the Taliban.

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Panjshir has always been a place apart, an ethnic Tajik enclave in the Hindu Kush with a wary eye on the polyglot capital, Kabul. Bumper stickers here proclaim "United State of Panjshir." It is one of the few Afghan provinces with a border station where officials log outsiders' names and license plates.

It's a stunning landscape of snowcapped peaks and orchards where men on horseback are a common sight, dressed in long, striped chapan cloaks with extended sleeves. They are fiercely independent.

"The Americans will go, the foreigners will go, but we will always be responsible for defending ourselves," said Haji Sediq, an elderly former warrior who fought the Russians and lost friends to the Taliban. He sat next to the rusted remains of a Soviet tank that Panjshiris keep as a reminder of outside threats.

Among the fiercest advocates of rearming is Ismail Khan, a former Northern Alliance commander and Panjshiri ally. Khan, 65, a Tajik, was forced out by Karzai as the self-appointed emir of Herat province in western Afghanistan, and he seethes with resentment.

With his thick white beard, piercing eyes and white robes, Khan is a forbidding figure as he speaks in a drawing room of his heavily guarded Kabul compound. The U.S.-trained Afghan military can't defeat the Taliban, he said, without the backing of mujahedin militias like his own.

"I have thousands and thousands of people loyal to me, and it is their duty to be well-armed," Khan said. "It's not just the Panjshiris, but all the people of Afghanistan who want to take up weapons in our country's fight against the Taliban."

At a rally in Herat last year, Khan exhorted his followers to rearm, recruit new fighters and rebuild militia commands.

Khan is a candidate for vice president in the April election. His presidential running mate is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a former Northern Alliance warlord and extremist Islamist cleric and Taliban foe who has been accused of war crimes. Sayyaf also advocates rearming militias.

A former top security advisor to Karzai agrees that Panjshiris are stockpiling weapons and says they have opened up arms pipelines to India and Russia.

"Karzai long ago lost the Northern Alliance — politically, not militarily. Not yet," the former advisor said. "These people are well-armed, with access to heavy weapons."

If the security pact with the United States is not signed, the advisor said, "you'll see the weapons come out."

In Panjshir, former mujahedin say the Taliban will never penetrate their enclave. But like many other Afghans, they worry about a Taliban resurgence if the security pact fails or the election goes badly.

In May, seven Taliban suicide bombers detonated explosives at the provincial government and police center in Bazarak, the Panjshiri provincial capital. The Afghan army was so concerned this summer about a Taliban incursion from neighboring Warduj district that it mounted a major strike force to beat back advancing insurgents.

The Afghan military "could not allow the Taliban to gain influence in Warduj," the senior coalition officer said. "It feeds into the northeast end of the Panjshir Valley, which feeds directly into Kabul."

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Panjshiris long for the past and complain that lesser warlords abandoned the province to amass fortunes in Kabul, and that the U.S. has failed to provide roads, schools and clinics. Panjshiris also resent Americans for renaming their militias, initially called the United Islamic Front, to mask their religious foundation.

In Bazarak, Habibul Rahman, 45, said America had done nothing for Panjshir, while failing to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He mentioned schools, a hospital and soccer stadium he said were built by the Karzai government thanks to early Panjshiri influence in Kabul.

Told that local projects were financed by billions of dollars in U.S. and international aid, Rahman seemed surprised. Then he shrugged and said, "OK, the Americans built us a road, but it's already full of holes."

As a mujahid, Rahman said, he fought the Taliban to keep it from overrunning Panjshir. Now, he said, Panjshiris are ready to take up arms again.

"The Americans? They should leave," he said. "We're the ones who will destroy the Taliban."

david.zucchino@latimes.com
 

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